In the Spotlight

News & Features
North Carolina Baseball Politics
By Martin Kaste
October 6, 1997

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Governor Carlson says the time has come for Minnesota to wrap up the two-year-old political battle over a new baseball stadium. Twins owner Carl Pohlad also is running out of patience; he's agreed to sell the team to a North Carolina buyer if the Minnesota Legislature doesn't come through with money for a new stadium this month. But leaving Minnesota won't necessarily mean the end of the Twins' political headaches. In fact, the team may arrive in North Carolina just in time for a Minnesota-style, anti-stadium backlash.

WELCOME TO DOWNTOWN CHARLOTTE, home to a handful of new office buildings, a few parking garages, and not much else.

Even native Charlottians recognize the streets are a little too quiet here after 5:00. Last winter, the local business elite rolled out a plan to revitalize the downtown with pro sports. They proposed a downtown sports hub, starting with the already-built Panthers football stadium, adding a new arena for the NBA Hornets, and, in the spirit of build-it-and-they-will-come, a new major league baseball stadium. All the city would have to do is kick in a few hundred million dollars.

Voice: It is outlandish, almost immoral, that they would use tax dollars to advance their own cause.

The sports complex plan ran into a political brick wall. City Councilman Don Reid and a coalition of groups from both ends of the political spectrum fought the plan until it finally died. But the anger over the arena plan still lingers.

Radio Announcer: We have a caller - Randy! It's your turn.

Caller: Hi guys! I'll tell you what the real deal is. This is from one of these "little people," here in Charlotte. This whole thing is just a big scheme by the "uptown crowd" is trying to pull on us taxpayers to engage in corporate welfare.

Councilman Reid says a lot of the popular enthusiasm that accompanied the arrival of the NBA Hornets in 1988 and the NFL Panthers in 1995 has petered out, in part because of ticket prices.

Reid: Most people in this town will never see a Panthers game, and yet they're paying to subsidize the team, even though they can barely make their house payments or whatever. And that's fundamentally wrong.... I think there's more awareness in the city of Charlotte today about the use of public money to fund athletic teams, and there's more resistance than there ever has been.

Even the mayor, Pat McCrory, who has a friendlier relationship with the business leaders, acknowledges the increasing difficulty convincing voters to put public money into pro sports.

McCrory: There's a fine line between the benefits of sports franchise versus both the political cost and the financial cost of trying to get one. And it's very, very different to measure and it's tough to sell.

The de facto head of the Charlotte business group, NationsBank CEO Hugh McColl, would not comment for this report - nor would any other NationsBank officials. The downtown sports complex has dropped off Charlotte's political radar, and both the Mayor and Councilman Reid say they expect it to stay out of sight until after city elections this fall.

An hour-and-a-half north of Charlotte, in the urban-suburban region known as the "Triad," local business leaders are more optimistic about the politics of pro sports subsidies. The Twins' tentative buyer, buseinssman Don Beaver, says he wants to bring the team to a $210 million stadium to be built on a suburban no-man's-land halfway between the cities of Greensboro and Winston-Salem. A new restaurant tax is supposed to cover two-thirds of the the stadium's cost, but Don Beaver can't count on that yet. The tax is subject to a referendum next May. Triad baseball promoter Mike Solomon is confident voters will see the wisdom of the tax.

Solomon: The argument that we make is that the tax that we've chosen has minimal, if any, impact on the industry it affects in each of the counties it's in. There's been essentially no complaints.

The proposed tax has been controversial. The baseball promoters tried to get legislative permission for a twelve-county area tax, but had to settle for just two counties to save the bill in the North Carolina legislature. And in those two counties, support has been mixed, at best. A recent poll showed 60% of voters oppose the tax, and 51% think Don Beaver and his partners should pay for a bigger share of the stadium.

Mike Solomon thinks the opinions will change. He says people in the Triad are eager for the kind of national visibility that come with a pro sports team - the kind of visibility Charlotte gets with the Hornets and the Panthers.

Solomon: You know, the wire lines will list "Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Highpoint" as the location.... Having a major league baseball team in the region will move us to the next level up.

Miles Wolff, a baseball expert in Durham and President of the Northern League, says he believes it's the Triad baseball boosters who are on a quest for legitimacy, and he says Don Beaver is using the Twins just as much as Carl Pohlad is using the Triad.

Wolff: The Triad group needs to show within North Carolina that they're a legitimate candidate - that, "Look, people are listening to us, the Twins are talking about moving." So they need the Twins so they can say, "We'll get the Twins if you'll vote for our referendum."

The Triad area is the most aggressive pursuer of the Twins. But privately, Charlotte politicians say they believe major league baseball belongs in thier city, and if Triad voters defeat the stadium referendum, Charlotte won't hesitate to rejoin the race to capture the Twins.

Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory says the Triad effort may end up proding his city into making an overture for a baseball team before it's ready, politically or financially, to take one on. The budding rivalry could be very good for the Twins' possible new owner, Don Beaver. If the Triad voters defeat the stadium tax, he might be able to offer the team to Charlotte. But Charlotte's attitude toward paying for a stadium could remain as sour, as city councilmember Don Reid predicts.

Reid: I don't believe the people of Charlotte, given a choice, would vote to spend a substantial amount of money to bring the Twins or anybody else here. In fact, I don't believe a referendum on funding pro sports in any manner would pass the vote of the people of Charlotte.

If both the Triad and Charlotte take a pass at building the Twins a new stadium, Don Beaver might find himself facing the same alternatives that Carl Pohlad finds so distasteful: find a way to build a new stadium without public money, try his luck in another city, or leave the Twins in the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.